Lightning struck Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport's air traffic control tower, injuring one person and shutting down the airport for nearly three hours Thursday afternoon, delaying or stranding thousands of travelers.
A bolt struck the tower about 2:30 p.m., shocking a controller as he was flipping a switch to turn on a generator that powers backup runway lights, said John Dunkerly, president of BWI's chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The controller, whom he declined to identify, fell to his knees and experienced numbness in his left arm and leg, Dunkerly said. He since has recovered and was released from the hospital Thursday evening.
To avoid the risk of other injuries, the tower was shut down, prompting airport officials to ground all departures and divert all incoming flights.
Air traffic resumed about 5 p.m., though the control tower remained out of commission, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control, which handles air traffic control in the air space around the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., region, assumed control of BWI air traffic, the FAA said.
The FAA said nothing more Thursday about the lightning strike and BWI officials referred inquiries to the FAA.
The lightning strike dumbfounded the controllers on duty, said Dunkerly, who added that he has never heard of such an incident in nearly 30 years in the industry. It also underscored concerns about safety in the 30-year-old tower, he said.
"We didn't have any idea why it happened," Dunkerly said. "Usually [the towers] are pretty safe during these storms."
Delta passenger Mark Levine, of Alexandria, Va., was on a plane readying to take off for Cincinnati when the pilot told passengers of the lightning strike, he said. The plane spent more than two hours on the runway without air conditioning before returning to a gate, Levine said.
Having missed a connection to Nashville, Tenn., Levine tried — unsuccessfully — to find another flight, then returned home to try again Friday.
"There's still thousands of people at BWI who are in line," Levine said Thursday evening.
Steve Sarkady of Atlanta had boarded a flight that was scheduled to take off at 12:50 p.m but was running late.
"We heard a couple loud booms around the airport," said Sarkady, who grew up in Rockville and was in the area on business. "It actually felt like it hit the plane."
The passengers were kept on the plane for more than an hour, and then the crew said they would take off. But they later told them the flight was canceled because of the lightning strike.
He planned to leave for Atlanta again Friday afternoon.
"I'll just roll the dice for tomorrow because today was just way too much," Sarkady said.
Shortly after flights resumed at the airport, travelers were scrambling to rearrange plans, making calls on cellphones and lining up at ticket counters. Dozens of flights were canceled, both arrivals and departures, with many others delayed by hours, according to flight tracking website FlightStats.com.
Lacey Shaver, 28, sat on the floor near the airport lost-and-found office, charging her phone. The Washington, D.C., resident was headed to Memphis, Tenn., for a high school reunion and a work conference on urban sustainability.
But she had a problem checking her luggage, and there was so much confusion during the outage that she wasn't even sure whether her flight had taken off.
"I have no idea if it's canceled," she said as she waited for ticketing lines to shorten so she could figure out her next steps. "In about 30 or 45 minutes, I couldn't find anyone to talk to."
St. Louis, Mo., resident Joe Blaes was planning to return home from a business trip when his 3:50 p.m. American Airlines flight to Dallas was first delayed and later canceled. Blaes, chief editor of Dental Economics magazine, said BWI officials handled the situation well and kept travelers informed. He is staying at a hotel Thursday night and intends to fly home Friday.
"These things happen," said Blaes, a frequent traveler. "I'll enjoy two drinks and have a nice dinner tonight."
Linell Cutchember of Towson lamented the fun she was missing out on because of her canceled flight. The 42-year-old had been scheduled to fly to Miami for a bridal shower.
"Everyone's there except me," she said with a laugh as she waited for her brother to pick her up.
Cutchember said all flights to Miami from Baltimore were booked for Friday. She made a reservation for an early-morning flight out of D.C., but still needed to figure out how she would get to the airport.
She hadn't been to BWI for about five years.
"My first time back, and this happened," she said.
Lightning has disrupted travel at the airport in the past. In a powerful 2001 storm, lightning knocked out the radar at BWI and blasted two holes in its runway. Arriving and departing flights were delayed for hours, and many were canceled altogether.
Dunkerly said he hoped the incident could speed efforts to replace the nearly three-decade-old air traffic control tower that he said "has well outlived its useful life span." This year, the FAA began preliminary planning for a new tower, with more panoramic views of airport activity and space for modern electronic monitoring equipment, at a cost of at least $26 million.
The base of the existing tower was built in the 1950s, when the airport was known as Friendship Airport. It was razed and a new control room was built in 1983. At that time, the airport handled 4.7 million passengers. Last year, it handled 22.7 million.
Baltimore Sun reporters Nayana Davis and Erica L. Green contributed to this article.